It’s certainly been a good year for the CIA—at least in the movies. The intelligence service might have gotten a black eye from fiction films like “The Bourne Legacy” (as well as some actual intelligence flubs), but in terms of docu-dramas, it’s come up roses. First Ben Affleck’s “Argo” lauded the rescue of the six Americans who fled the Iranian takeover of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979 and hid in the Canadian ambassador’s home. And now Kathryn Bigelow does the same with the hunt for Osama bin Laden in “Zero Dark Thirty.”
Bigelow has spent her career proving that a woman director can make tough action pictures as well as any man, and here she demonstrates that a female protagonist can be as hard-nosed and unstoppable as a male, too. She brings the same facility in melding nail-biting tension and intense personal drama that she exhibited in the Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker” to this fact-based account of how a Pakistan-based agent here called Maya single-mindedly concentrated on tracking down bin Laden even after virtually everyone else had thrown up their hands at the possibility of finding him. It was largely her indefatigable efforts, Mark Boal’s script argues, that eventually led to the 2011 assault by Navy SEALs on his Abbottabad compound that resulted in his death—a raid that’s dramatized in the film’s last half-hour.
But the triumph of Boal and Bigelow is that what precedes the actual mission is even more compelling. It introduces Maya (the apparently ubiquitous Jessica Chastain, in her best work to date) as a green newcomer assigned as an aide to Dan (Jason Clarke), an interrogator skilled in using the Bush administration’s “enhanced” techniques on al-Quaeda suspects at a secret base. She watches with a mixture of dismay and steely determination as Dan subjects one captive (Rada Kateb) to various indignities, including waterboarding, before the man—believed to be involved in the movement of terrorist funds—is tricked into revealing the name of bin Laden’s courier. It’s on that slender thread of information that Maya bases her obsessive years-long hunt for the mastermind behind the 9/11 event.
The pursuit is hardly a straight-line affair. It’s almost derailed by the qualms of Maya’s results-oriented boss (Kyle Chandler), who’s annoyed by her continued follow-up on what appears to be a dead end, and by an actual assassination attempt on her (as well as a bombing that almost takes her and a colleague out as they have dinner at a hotel restaurant). But spurred on by the death of that colleague (played by Jennifer Ehle), along with several other agency officers, in a suicide bombing engineered by a Jordanian double-agent (an event Bigelow stages with particular craft), she’s able to get Dan, now stationed at Langley, to secure the funds that persuade a Kuwaiti playboy to reveal a phone number that can be followed to trace the courier’s whereabouts. That in turn leads to an exciting sequence in which the CIA team must speed through teeming streets to follow the cell signal back to its source.
And even after the compound is identified, Maya must travel to Washington to persuade the upper echelons of the agency—most notably CIA Director Leon Panetta (played with a gruff streak by James Gandolfini)—to accept her conclusions and recommend an action plan to the President.
All of this might sound confusing and difficult to follow, but Boal and Bigelow lay it out so dexterously that it takes on a sort of narrative inevitability, and the cast—with Chastain and Clarke leading the way but everyone, including Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt as two of the gung-ho SEALs who undertake the hazardous mission as Maya awaits word of the outcome back at the base—all respond with authority. The picture uses some archival material—a few audio clips, some news footage—but does so sparingly, preferring to give its recreations a dose of realism through locations and a physical production that avoids glamour, largely hand-held camerawork (courtesy of Greg Fraser) and crisp cutting from editors Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg. In an apparent nod to the desire to damp down any trace of artificiality Alexandre Desplat’s score is more understated than one might expect.
“Zero Dark Thirty” was criticized by some before it even opened as a propaganda piece in praise of President Obama, but it emerges as nothing of the sort. Apart from a few references to him in the dialogue (a few complaining of his decision to prohibit those “enhanced” interrogation techniques) and a fleeting image of him on a television, and absolutely no footage of him following the assault, he’s absent from the story (as is George W. Bush). And it’s since been attacked for its implication that torture was key to beginning the process by which bin Laden was eventually found. But while such issues are certainly appropriate matters for discussion, they don’t alter the fact that Bigelow’s film is gripping, a masterful piece of action filmmaking that succeeds in generating enormous tension by dramatizing a recent historical event in spite the fact that everyone knows how it will end.